The apostle Peter followed Jesus around Israel for three years. He walked with him, learned from him, and witnessed mind-blowing miracles by which Jesus declared himself to be the rescuing King God had promised.
Each miracle—opening the eyes of the blind, making a paralyzed man walk, feeding thousands of people by multiplying a few loaves of bread—were glimpses of the kind of kingdom Jesus would establish for his followers. A kingdom of wholeness, abundance, and holiness. And that was exactly the kind of kingdom Peter wanted to live in!
Based on the way Jesus kept choosing Peter, James, and John to be up close and included in private meetings, it probably seemed to Peter that he was well on his way to playing an important role in Jesus’s earthly ministry and kingdom.
So, when Jesus began to reveal that he came to save them by dying for them, Peter got offended because he didn’t understand.
Followers Fail, Doubt, and Misunderstand
In the final moments of following Jesus on earth, Peter found himself at odds with Jesus, whom he’d been so determined to follow.
At the last supper, Jesus told his followers, “You will all fall away.” But Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:27–29).
Jesus said, “This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter said, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Matthew 26:34–35).
In the space of a few hours, Peter would be standing by a fire, and his declarations of loyalty would melt into three panicked denials.
From sword-swinging valor to cursing and terrified disowning of his king and friend, Peter, a true follower of Jesus, proved unable to keep his promises of loyalty when it mattered most. So “He went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)
As you’ve followed Jesus throughout your life, have you been there? Devastatingly ashamed?
Have you asked yourself, “How could I have done that? How could I have done that again? Am I even a Christian?”
I have been there, and my tendency is the same as Peter’s. I want to flee! I want to get as far away from the evidence of my failure as I can.
I have often wept bitterly. I’ve cried in embarrassment because I ought to know better. I’ve buried my head in shame because shouldn’t I have this sin whipped by now? And I’ve bawled my eyes out in despair because I wonder if this time, I’ve finally ruined God’s plan for my loved ones or me.
One of those times was in the spring of 2012. At the time, our boys were 8, 7, and 5, and we had two little foster girls, ages 3 and 2.
As I looked around my life, I was failing at all the things that were most important to God and to me. Marriage, parenting, foster-parenting, and even my walk with Jesus—everything seemed to be crumbling.
Kurt and I were merely existing in the same house. When I took time to read my Bible and pray, I spent more time crying than reading or praying. I was struggling with sins of bitterness, distrusting God, and being harsh and impatient with my family.
I was parenting like I was a machine, and our kids were five little widgets I had to service. Wake, feed, transport, bathe. It was like our home had become an institutional parenting operation with gaping holes where loving discipline and nurture should have been.
I’d begun to wonder, “Am I even a Christian? Shouldn’t this all be easier because I’m following Jesus?”
I had been begging God for months to either change my heart or my circumstances.
One particular night I prayed: God, why am I still struggling with these things?! Don’t you see how badly this is going? Do you know how wrung out I am? Do you care that these kids are dying for individual attention? I can’t do it because I have a logistics problem…a 1 to 5 ratio! The only mother-child activity I could possibly manage is to have them “help” while I cook. But I don’t have the patience for it, and the boys are interested in fishing, not cooking!
There was no answer, and I went to bed in tears. Why couldn’t I get this figured out?!
The next day was more of the same, robotic parenting and unloving responses. The gaping holes of individual attention were still begging to be filled.
No voice from heaven.
No overwhelming sense of peace.
No change in circumstances.
No change of heart.
Jesus Points Out Our Need
I wonder if that’s how Peter felt when we find him in John 21. After Jesus had died and risen, he instructed his disciples to meet him in Galilee, and then he disappeared.
If I had to retell the story of John 21:1-9, I’d tell it like this:
Peter flung his net over the lake and heard it hiss as it sank. He and John drug it back in without speaking. Fishing came back to him as naturally as breathing.
Three years ago, he’d left this boat in a pile of fish and walked away to follow Jesus. And every unpredictable moment of the past three years had culminated in the strangest, most horrible, and fascinating week of his life.
He shook his head remembering. Loyal to the end was his plan. In his fast-talking, fast-acting efforts to be the rock Jesus had called him, he’d vowed to die with Jesus. Instead, he had denied and deserted Him, and Jesus alone had died.
Then, incredibly, He came back to life.
Peter looked around the boat draping the empty net over his arm. James and Andrew worked in rhythm. Thomas and Nathaniel were at the oars, and the others dozed in the bow.
The last orange glow of the evening diminished into darkness, and Peter cast out his net again.
He hoped fishing would ease his mind, and he hadn’t even had to convince the others to come along. They were just waiting, after all. Waiting for Jesus to meet them in Galilee, as he said he would. But when? And where was he now? What was taking so long?
It was a dreary but familiar rhythm. The sinkers slapped the water, and the hissing net sunk. Ropes scraped over the sides of the boat, and Peter and John pulled up the net tangled with weeds, dripping with mud, empty of fish. He shoved down his frustration. Waiting. Wondering. Working.
Hour after hour. All night long.
The sun fanned out pink on the horizon and gave just enough light to see the outline of a man on the shore. The smoke from his fire wafted onto the lake and reminded Peter of his hunger. Salt in the wound of a night with no fish.
They were tired, sore, and hungry, and they decided to call it a night. When they were still 100 yards out, the man on shore called out to them.
“Friends, don’t you have any fish?”
A night of work with nothing to show, and now they were forced to admit it.
No idea where Jesus was.
They called back to the man on the shore, “No.”
I find it instructive that throughout the gospels, and in my own life, when Jesus wants to reveal himself and show his power to his followers, he often points out their need. And it sometimes sounds harsh.
For example, when 5,000 people on a remote hillside needed food, Jesus said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Incredulous, the disciples replied, “We have only five loaves and two fish” (see Luke 9:13).
To the crippled man who’d lain by the temple pool for 38 years, Jesus said, “Do you want to get well?” and the man essentially answered, “I can’t! I have no one to put me into the healing waters” (see John 5:7).
And to his followers who’d been fishing while waiting for him, Jesus asked, “Friends, don’t you have any fish?”
In my own life, Jesus often makes me acutely aware of my own desperate need so that when he goes to work in my regular surroundings, I’ll know it was him.
Jesus Fills our Gaping Holes
The evening after my desperate complaining prayer for help with my parenting, I put three of my five kids in bed. I was ready to clock out when my eight-year-old brought me a magazine with 65 full-color pages of perfectly decorated treats and said, “Mom, can we make something out of here?”
I was tired, and I had no desire or patience to start an activity. Plus, it was a Christmas magazine, and I knew every recipe in there called for peppermint oil or crushed candy canes, and in April, I had none of that on hand.
So I said, “I don’t have the right ingredients for any of those recipes.”
But he didn’t give up. “Can you just check?”
I flipped through the pages and noticed a recipe with only four ingredients. I had all of them on hand—including a half-bag of pastel mini marshmallows left over from a craft. And, it was a no-bake recipe.
I figured it wouldn’t take too long, so we went to the kitchen and had a rare and uninterrupted 20 minutes of Christmas “baking” in April.
We mixed melted chocolate chips and butter with the pastel marshmallows, rolled it into a log, and refrigerated it. When we sliced them the next morning, each cookie looked like a multicolored mosaic pane, held together by chocolate.
I served him one of our little treats for breakfast, and since I’d never seen them before, I dug up the magazine and pressed it open to find out what they were called.
They were called Cathedral Windows.
Through a four-ingredient, no-bake recipe, Jesus had filled that gaping hole of need with a cathedral window.
Not only had he answered my prayer for one-on-one time with my needy son, but he had also done it according to the schedule he knew I had to keep. He acknowledged my veiled complaint about cooking with a no-bake recipe. More shocking, he answered my questions:
“Yes. I see. I hear. I know, and I care.”
In a way, it was like a recurring refrain of Jesus saying, “Even now, I will do for you what you cannot do for yourself.”
When we are desperate, God stands ready to strengthen his followers with his presence, his loving attention, and a revelation of himself that proves he is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.
He fills gaping holes with cathedral windows and empty nets with fish.
Jesus’ Generous Gift to His Followers
The man on the shore called out again, and Peter asked, “What did he say?”
John answered, “He said to cast on the right side to find some fish.”
The rest of the disciples stopped fiddling with nets and oars, ropes and sails. John and Peter eased themselves and the net to the other side. The boat shifted, dipping low with their weight.
In one orchestrated motion, they flung the net. Once again, it hit the water like a smattering of rain, then went silent.
In unison, they pulled on the ropes.
The net seemed stuck.
Peter held the rope too loosely, and two feet of it scraped through his hands, leaving a bloody burn before he got a grip. He and John braced themselves against the weight of the net and looked at each other. Andrew and James and the others dropped their gear and scrambled over benches and oars to help.
The seven of them pulled, and the boat lurched to that side. The water’s surface shattered with the splashing of silver tails and fins.
John and Peter held the ropes and looked at the shore. Then John said, “It is the Lord!”
Peter thrust the ropes at James, grabbed his cloak from the mast, wriggled it over his head, and dove in.
Peter had been here before. Straining at the ropes of a catch he couldn’t bring in. It was a visual demonstration of God’s grace that bookended his life of following Jesus: a net so full of what he had been working for that he could not contain it.
It had taken years of failure and misunderstanding for Peter to get it, but Jesus’s message had always been the same: I will generously give you what you cannot earn or deserve. I will do for you what you cannot do for yourself. I will declare you holy.
Peter needed what only Jesus could give. And so do you and I.
Even if you’ve been following Jesus for years, you still don’t have to earn his forgiveness and grace. We must simply receive what he lavishes on us by whatever means he chooses.
In the setting that was most familiar to Peter, Jesus pointed out his need. Then Jesus filled the empty nets with fish…again…so that Peter and the other disciples would know—without a doubt—Jesus would continue to do for them what they could not do for themselves.
In your most desperate and discouraging circumstances, he is present and attentive, even if you don’t recognize him at first. He will provide, but he often does it in surprising ways so that you’ll know it was him.